Monday, August 18, 2008

Cities Unlimited

A man who is tired of London commonly invokes "quality of life", for there is to quality of life much that London cannot afford. Oliver Mark Hartwich does exactly that in a newspaper article written a couple of days ago. Entitled "Parting Shot", he celebrates his imminent departure to Australia by complaining about the high prices and shortage of housing, that he is leaving behind. The article is conceptually not very original, but it is well-written, and he probably enjoyed writing it. As a northener, I quite enjoyed reading it. Its most interesting aspect, however, relates to its author.

Hartwich is chief economist at Policy Exchange, the think tank whose report Cities Unlimited elicited howls of protest for its conclusion that the UK economy would be well-served by large-scale internal migration from cities like Liverpool, to London, Oxford and Cambridge. The spectacle of one of the report's authors emigrating from London, will do no favours to its credibility.

Section 9 of the report is the part that explains why Oxbridge (alongside London) get fingered as attractive sites to re-settle hordes of disgruntled Scousers. The authors are probably giving too much weight to the ability of famous universities to serve as indicators of economic potential. If Oxbridge could attract millions of new residents based on their universities, shouldn't they have done so by now? After all, they have had plenty of time. Their failure to do so is blamed on planning restrictions. Their alleged ability to do so is attributed to their high land prices, however those land prices may only be sustained by the planning restrictions. It is unreasonable to expect local people to willingly open their doors to floods of new immigrants -- there are too many vested interests in the form of high local house prices.

Finally, for the purpose of assessing successfulness of universities, they are measured by taking the proportion of government funding they receive for research, as a fraction of total government funding. This measure conveniently puts Oxbridge and London well ahead of the pack. But it also causes any university to get worse and worse with every additional student that it attracts, which to most people is counter-intuitive.

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